NORTH PROVIDENCE – These burial grounds, marked in the Rhode Island cemetery database as NP12, or the Hezekiah Olney Farm Lot, seemed to have been lost. For the last 10 years, the Rev. Ken Postle, pastor of New Hope Baptist Church and cemetery coordinator for the Blackstone Valley Historical Society, has been searching for it.
“It’s in a patch of woods in a neighborhood,” he said. “The latest burial was about 1850.”
After finishing up a project on Saturday, Sept. 3, Postle decided to push his luck and went in search of NP12. With coordinates and old photos of the cemetery having been on Elena Street in North Providence, he parked on the narrow side road off of Mineral Spring Avenue and happened to run into Joyce Chadwick, who lives across the street from the cemetery.
“He pulled up and asked if I knew about the cemetery because no one seemed to know where it was,” she told The North Providence Breeze.
Chadwick had in fact been in the cemetery many years before. She said she moved to Elena Street in 2000 and a neighbor took her to see the cemetery. Since then, it has been severely overgrown, eaten up by the woods. At one point, Chadwick said, she saw a piece of a gravestone that had been placed on the street.
Other neighbors such as the Colettis, whose house abuts the cemetery, also knew of its existence.
“He (Steve) grew up in the area,” Stacy Coletti said of her husband. “This was all a farm at one point and then his family built houses sort of on the outskirts of it. He sort of grew up knowing this was here. We just sort of knew in the back of our mind that it was here and got overgrown.”
Once known as Coletti Farm, and owned by Steve’s grandfather, Stacy and Steve were able to pick a plot of land to build their house and decided to put it near the cemetery, as a buffer, since one can’t build in a cemetery. They knew about its existence, but not that it was a mystery to others.
Much of the Coletti Farm property was recently sold to the town of North Providence for preservation as future recreation space.
After finally discovering the cemetery, Postle flagged some of the visible gravestones and planned a cleanup event for last Saturday, Sept. 10. He started to try and clear some of the greenbriers so two headstones would be visible, those of Hezekiah and Phebe Olney.
Sponsored by the Blackstone Valley Historical Society, BVHS, and with the help of 19 volunteers, discoveries were made during an “amazing day” last Saturday, said Postle, who marked the cemetery from Elena Street with an American Flag. In total 30 burials were identified, with more expected when he returns this weekend with volunteers.
Getting dirty and helping out in the discovery process last Saturday were the Colettis. Chadwick also helped out, baking goodies and offering supplies.
“This is not the first time I’ve been here,” Steve said. “It’s been almost 30 years since I was here.”
Stacy added, “It’s kind of cool discovering the history of it since we live next door and never knew who was here or what it was about.”
The last known written record of NP12 Cemetery was by James Arnold in 1893. Postle unearthed the entrance Arnold would have used to get into the cemetery. He said that Arnold spent his life meticulously recording inscriptions.
The Quakers did not start inscribing or carving their gravestones until about 1820. Since they had escaped persecution from the British, they did not want to be ostentatious and did not want to highlight any one person to a greater degree than the next. Postle said that they also allowed anyone to be buried in their cemeteries, including servants and slaves.
“They (the bodies) are buried facing east, so even if they have no inscription on their headstone, the stones are telling you the story that they believe in the hope of resurrection,” he said. “Their feet are facing east and so they stand up at the resurrection when Jesus comes.”
The most preserved stones were the last ones to be laid for Hezekiah and Phebe Olney.
“Hezekiah is a lieutenant,” Postle said. “He joined the militia right after the Revolution, so he gave us the Second Amendment. Militias had to have the right to bear arms and have them in case the government pulled another British thing. In 1812, the British reinvade, so the militia was the first line of defense. It was the militia that were trained and ready to go. He was too young to get into the battle of the Revolution. His brother, Stephen Olney, is a hero, buried in his cemetery. And his dad was a major. He becomes an officer and kept people trained.”
While the Olneys had slate headstones and footstones, other stones that were discovered after probing and digging were known as marble stones. Marble stones go into a base, while slate stones are anchored into the ground. Using the distance between a headstone and footstone, Postle said one can determine if the buried person was an adult or child.
At the older part of the cemetery, volunteers dug up the stone of Marvel Hawkins, with an inscription. Five bases for Hawkins burials include one for a baby.
While the Colettis were helping to be neighborly, some of the volunteers went to see if they could find family members. Marianne Hawkins Rivet and Dave Rivet, of Lincoln, were there to see the Hawkins family graves emerge from the cleared overgrowth.
The three main families include the Olneys, the Hawkinses and the Parkers. The other gravestones that were discovered but not marked will be researched further, Postle said, to see if they can find out who lies there.
Postle said they were able to make quite a difference in clearing out the cemetery last Saturday, but there is still a long way to go to clear trees and underbrush.